Strength and Powerlessness
On Being Female
You never forget the first man who held you down and kissed you — that moment when you realized he was so much stronger than you — he could do whatever he liked and you couldn’t stop him. Back when you were thirteen and spent an hour getting ready, applying Maybelline lipstick in fuchsia and carefully ironing your black and white shirt — the one with the pinstripes down the front and the polka dots on the cuffs. You’ll remember how that lipstick saved you — the smear it made across his uniform shirt and how mad he was that now he had to change before his shift at the hospital.
You never forget the second time — in car outside a boy’s house — or the third — in front of the gym — or the fourth — in the hallway outside the bathroom in a bar. You’ll see yourself in every story of every girl who wasn’t as lucky as you. You were just held down and kissed — that was nothing, each of these men let you go with your clothes still on. And you know it was only their mercy that separated you from the other girls — the ones who didn’t get away.
The swirling ache will form a jagged rock inside you: gratitude for the men’s restraint, rage that they made you so powerless, and shame that you didn’t listen more carefully to the warnings of your mother. This is a story every woman knows.
But there’s another side to being female. Dressing to match your best friend before the dance, fixing each other’s hair and doing synchronized moves that somehow look at little cooler when the two of you do them together. Crying on the shoulder of that girl until your tears left wet marks on the shoulder of her hoodie. Female friendship feels more intimate than anything you see between your brother and his friends — boys don’t sleep on each other on the city bus or carefully brush hair out of each other’s faces. You and your girlfriends walk down the street together after dark — though your mother warned you never to do so — singing and skipping like you’re a decade younger. You drink out of the same cups, share one meal for dinner, and fall asleep on the same couch while watching movies on your brand-new VCR.
Your best friend knows everything first — when you think you’re pregnant or about to break up with someone. They listen to every word you’re going to say, and they still love you when you can’t manage to say those words you worked so long to string together.
This side of being female is flowing water around those jagged stones, into the cracks between men and children and work and obligation. You whisper in the dark and they whisper secrets back. This is how you wear away at the edges of what you can’t forget.
And one day you hold a tiny baby in your arms and you know that you are the only one it has to soothe, protect, and teach them about the ways of this often hard world. But even though you’ve never changed a diaper you know you’ll figure this thing out, and that there will be women along the way that will help you in your journey: your mother, your sister, the nurses at the hospital, the women whose babies are just a few months or years older than your own. Even if you don’t know them yet, you know they are there waiting.
And when your child goes off into the world you tell them if they are ever lost to look for a mother. You trust in the kindness of female strangers, and you’ve been that stranger to someone else’s nameless child — finding their mother, giving a Band-Aid, pulling them back from the street when they wander too close to traffic. This, too, is what it means to be a woman.
Lara Lillibridge is the author of two memoirs: Mama, Mama, Only Mama, and Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home. She co-edited an anthology, Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility with co-editor Andrea Fekete.